Church in Rome in the First Century
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The Roman Catacombs.
The Cemeteries of Priscilla and Domitilla.

During the first century of our era the Romans almost universally practised cremation for the disposal of their dead. The law of the XII Tables supposes inhumation as well as cremation to be in use; but cremation gradually became the vogue and it was not until the age of the Antonines that, largely through the influence of Christianity and other Oriental cults, a reversion to the practice of inhumation began to take place. The early Christians from the first adopted the Jewish custom of burial, and their tombs were, whenever circumstances permitted, fashioned after the likeness of those in Palestine, sepulchres like that of the Lord Jesus Christ. No burials were permitted within the city of Rome; but the beds of soft volcanic tufa which lay beneath the soil of the suburban area afforded easy facilities for the excavation of subterranean galleries, vaults, and crypts in which to lay the dead. Hence gradually in the course of the first four centuries came into existence that vast underground city of the dead, often incorrectly spoken of as the Roman Catacombs. The word Catacombs strictly applies to one small cemetery only, the locus ad catacumbas532532The meaning of the term is uncertain. De Rossi gives it a hybrid derivation from κατά and cubitorium, but this is very doubtful. where the bodies of St. Peter and St. Paul in 258 A.D. found a temporary resting-place. The first Christian cemeteries differed in no way from those of the Jewish community, three of which have been discovered and explored.533533Raffaele Garrucci, Cimeteri degli antichi Ebrei; Orazio Marucchi, Elém. d'Arch. Chrét. ii. 208–226, 259–276. There has been much written on the subject of the Roman Catacombs which does not need consideration here. The cemeteries of the first century, whatever may have been the case later, were the property of private persons of rank and wealth, and were intended in the first place for the use of the family to which the owners belonged, also for that of their clients, freedmen and slaves, and by permission for other poor persons belonging to the Christian brotherhood. As yet there was no question of the formation of Collegia funeratica or Burial Guilds, though it is regarded as highly probable that such organisations with their collective ownership and special privileges did exist in the third century; indeed it is known that the several cemeteries were each attached to a titulus—or parish church. But this was not the case in the period with which we are dealing, when the places of assembly for congregational worship were still private houses—ecclesiae domesticae. The most ancient parts of the cemeteries of Priscilla and DomitilIa and the crypt of Lucina, which date from Apostolic times, were family vaults constructed beneath the property of the person after whose name they are called, and granted by that person, as a ‘locus sacer' placed under the protection of the Roman Law (lex monumenti). Henceforward the tomb was held inviolable, whatever might be the religion of those interred in it. The plot of ground (area) was often enclosed by walls, or its dimensions were engraved on boundary stones. Sometimes the inscription is found ‘Sibi suisque, libertis libertabusque posterisque eorum,' sometimes the letters H.M.H.N.S.—‘hoc monumentum haeredem non sequitur.' The administration of the leges monumentorum lay within the jurisdiction of the pontifices, who were thus the legal guardians of the inviolability of the burial-places thus granted, and their leave was required for the deposition of the bodies in the tombs or their translation, or indeed for the holding of anniversary festivals or rites or for any changes in the construction or character of the monuments. These powers do not seem to have been arbitrarily or vexatiously used, but it must always be remembered that they did exist and that the catacombs were in no sense secret and unknown hiding-places of the early Christians, but, with the exception perhaps of a few small subterranean crypts carefully concealed, like the Platonic chamber in which the bodies of the Apostles for awhile were laid, were registered and thus known to the magistrates.

The Roman Catacombs are one of the wonders of the world. It has been calculated that the length of the galleries in the cemeteries excavated within three miles of the Gates of Servius amounts to 540 miles, the quantity of material removed by excavation 96,000,000 cubic feet, and the number of bodies interred at the very least 1,700,000.534534Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, pp. 320–1. The estimate is that of Michele Stefano de Rossi made in 1860. Of this vast network of subterranean galleries only a comparatively small portion has been explored, though progress is being made year by year, and unfortunately all the cemeteries as they have been opened out have been found to be in a miserable state of ruin and devastation. Nevertheless, the Catacombs even in their present condition contain in the inscriptions and frescoes that still cover the walls, and in the remains of the shrines of saints and martyrs, a most precious record not merely of the names of the Christians who in the ages of persecution found their last resting-place in the loculi arranged along the walls of these crypts and galleries, but of their beliefs, prayers, rites, worship, and modes of thought. Historically we are here in the presence of a crowd of witnesses who though dead yet speak to us, of a mass of evidence that is incontrovertibly authentic.

By far the larger part of the tombs in the Catacombs belong to the century and a half which preceded the peace of the Church under Constantine, 313 A.D. But after the middle of the fourth century, although by the care of Pope Damasus (366-384 A.D.) and others basilicas were erected over the most venerated remains of famous martyrs, and the chapel-crypts in which the bodies actually lay were adorned with rich shrines and mural decorations, subterranean interment gradually ceased535535No inscription has been found of a later date than 410 A.D. and in the fifth century the Catacombs had become simply sanctuaries, whither pilgrims resorted to pray before the tombs of the martyrs. For three centuries a continual stream of pilgrims made their way, to Rome for this purpose, and some of the Itineraries or guide-books that they used still exist. Meanwhile the cemeteries were already in the seventh century beginning to be robbed of their precious contents, as in 645 A.D. and in 652 A.D. a number of the bodies of martyrs were removed from the Catacombs into Rome in order to save them from pillage and desecration at the hands of barbarian invaders. Finally in the time of Paschal I (817–824 A.D.) this translation to churches within the city walls was carried out on an extraordinary scale. It is said that the remains of no fewer than 2300 martyrs were deposited in one single church, that of St. Praxedis. Henceforward the pilgrimages came to an end, the Catacombs were deserted, and in time their very existence was forgotten. The accidental re-opening of a Christian cemetery by some workmen in the Vigna Sanchez on the Via Salaria in 1578 led to a revival of interest. It was part of what is now known as the Catacomb of the Jordani, but a landslip, owing to the rough carelessness of those who first examined these crypts, completely destroyed them and no trace of them now remains. It was fortunate that at the beginning of the seventeenth century a really intelligent and scientific exploration of the Catacombs was undertaken by Antonio Bosio, died 1629 A.D., who devoted thirty years to the study of the subject and was the real founder of Christian archaeology. He had great difficulties in his way owing to lack of resources for the purposes of excavation, but his ‘Roma Sotterranea,' published after his death in 1632, is of very great value owing to the wanton destruction during the next two centuries of monuments and works of art, which had survived as memorials of early Christianity in Rome. The one object of the exploration of the Catacombs, even on the part of those who did seriously study Christian archaeology and whose writings are a proof of the interest they felt in their subject—Aringhi, Boldetti, Bottari536536Aringhi, Roma Sotterranea, 1651; Boldetti, Osservazioni sopra i cimeteri di santi martiri ed antichi cristiani di Roma, 1720; Bottari, Sculture e pitture sacre extratte dai cimeteri di Roma, 1757. and others—was the discovery of the relics of saints. To effect this purpose the cemeteries were pillaged and ravaged, the loculi broken open, their contents carried away, the inscriptions broken to pieces or removed wholesale, the precious works of art found in the tombs—gold and silver vessels, lamps, medallions, engraved seals, precious stones, and personal ornaments—stolen and scattered far and wide. Some of these are to be seen to-day in museums and private collections, but the greater part have disappeared. Not until the middle of the nineteenth century was a successor found who approached the study of the Catacombs in. the scientific spirit of Bosio, and with far greater genius. Giovanni Battista de Rossi (1822–94), whose early interest in the subject of Christian archaeology had been aroused by the labours of P. Marchi,537537I monumenti delle anti cristiane primitive ne11a metropoli di Cristianesimo, 1844. whose pupil indeed he was, gave his whole life with a thoroughness and industry which could not be surpassed to the investigation of all known sources which threw light upon the topography and history of subterranean Rome. He possessed in a peculiar manner a special combination of gifts—patience, imagination and insight, and the results of his labours have been not merely fruitful in discovery and in additions to our knowledge of early Christianity, but they have proved that the so-called legends of the ‘Acta Sanctorum,' though late in date, are never to be regarded as simply fictitious romances, the efforts of imaginative invention. On the contrary, however great the accretion of legendary details, largely thaumaturgic, these stories deal with real historical persons and have been built up on a basis of genuine fact. Of De Rossi's method of working and the materials that he used in his researches—i.e. the Pilgrim Itineraries of the seventh century, five of which are still preserved in monastic libraries, the ancient topographies, the ‘Sillogae Epigraphicae' drawn up in the eighth and ninth centuries, the famous Monza papyrus containing a list of the sacred oils from the various shrines sent by Gregory the Great to the Lombard Queen Theodelinda, the notices in the ‘Liber Pontificalis,' the Hieronymian Martyrology, the lists in the Liberian Catalogue entitled ‘Depositio Episcoporum' and ‘Depositio Martirum,' and the ‘Acta Sanctorum' themselves—a full account is given by himself in his published works,538538Roma Solterranea Cristiana, 1864–77. Inscriptiones Christianae urbis Romae VIIº saeculo antiquiores, 1861–88. Il museo epigrafico cristiano pro-laterense, 1878. Musaici delle chiese di Roma anteriori at seculo XV, 1872. Especially Bullettino di Archeologia cristiana, 1863–94. The Bullettino has been continued with the title Nuovo Bullettino under the editorship of Professor O. Marucchi, the pupil and fellow-worker cf De Rossi. which should be consulted. References have already been made to the most important of the discoveries which have in recent years rewarded the explorers of the first century cemeteries of Priscilla and Domitilla under De Rossi's inspiring guidance, and it is unnecessary to restate at length what has been written. The bearing however of these and other discoveries in the same localities on the history of the Christian Church in Rome during the second half of the twelfth century is of such an interesting character that a brief recapitulation of results may be of service.

The vast cemetery of Priscilla lies on the Via Salaria Nova on the north side of the city. It consists of two stories, in each of which is found a network of galleries and crypts. The present entrance is modern (1865), the ancient door stands on the opposite side of the road, above which can be still read the inscription in the red letters which denote great antiquity, COEM. PRISCILLAE. It was in 1888 that De Rossi in the course of excavations discovered the crypt and chapel of the Acilian gens. The explorers first came across a broken marble slab containing the words ACILIO GLABRIONI FILIO, and afterwards the ruined crypt was unearthed and other fragments of inscriptions to members of various branches of the Acilian family. Formerly the walls had been encrusted with marble or coated with fine plaster and covered with frescos and mosaics, but everything had been smashed to pieces by the hands of relic and treasure hunters in the middle of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless the historical value of this signal find is great. It may be held to establish the fact that M' Acilius Glabrio, the consul of 91 A.D., who was put to death by Domitian accused of following ‘Jewish manners and strange superstitions' and of being ‘an inciter of innovations,' was a Christian, and not merely so but that in the second century many members of this distinguished family belonging to the high aristocracy of Rome had embraced the Christian faith. It seems to follow that this cemetery was excavated under property belonging to the Acilian House. The names of Priscilla and Prisca are found on inscriptions as in use among members of this family, and the Priscilla who was the donor of the ground and founder of the cemetery was doubtless a near relative of the Consul. In the preceding Note on the ‘Legend of Pudens' it has been pointed out that there is no necessary inconsistency in the two statements that Priscilla was mother of Pudens and sister or aunt of M' Acilius Glabrio. Indeed there are signs that the Acilian crypt and the primitive cemetery of Priscilla, though closely adjoining, were originally separated, the crypt being approached by a distinct staircase. If so, it is quite possible, as the ‘Acta' seem to indicate, that the cemetery may have been through his mother the property of Pudens, the crypt at its side constructed beneath land belonging to Glabrio. Above the cemetery of Priscilla, after the peace of the Church, was built a basilica, afterwards known as St. Sylvester,539539The basilica of St. Sylvester suffered complete destruction during the period of the Barbarian invasions. Its very existence had for long centuries been forgotten, until De Rossi unearthed its ruins in 1889. into which the bodies of many martyrs and saints were translated from the crypts below in the fourth century. The bodies however of Pudens and his daughters and of Aquila and Prisca were left undisturbed until the time of Leo IV in the middle of the ninth century. Leo IV appears to have made a careful exploration of the cemetery, but after his days it fell into disuse and complete abandonment. Beneath the story where these bodies lay is a second story, consisting of a long gallery out of which open some twenty transversal galleries as yet very imperfectly explored. Of this second story deep down below the surface and approached by two or more staircases from the upper galleries Marucchi writes: ‘On peut dire sans exaggération que c'est la region cimetériale la plus vaste et la plus régulière de toute la Rome souterraine. Ses inscriptions gravées sur marbre, ou peintes en rouges sur des tuiles comme au premier étage, attestent qu'au moins en partie elle remonte à la plus haute antiquité. A mon avis, il y eut là un noyau cimetérial dès le Ile siècle.'540540Marucchi, Elém. d'Arch. Chrét. ii. 459. One of the most remarkable features of the cemetery of Priscilla is the existence of two large tanks, one on each floor, besides several smaller ones. These two large tanks were almost certainly ancient baptisteries. Marucchi has written learnedly, and with a considerable measure of success, to identify the cemetery of Priscilla with the ‘Cymiterium Ostrianum, ubi Petrits apostolus baptizavit' of the apocryphal ‘Acta Liberii.' This cemetery also was called ad Nymphas or ad Fontes S. Petri, names which might well be derived from the tanks just mentioned. One of the principal pieces of evidence adduced by Marucchi is found in the Catalogue of Monza containing a list of the phials of sacred oil taken from the different shrines and sent to Queen Theodelinda by the direction of Gregory the Great. Under the heading ‘Salaria Nova' follows: ‘Sedes ubi sedit Scs Petrus ex oleo Sci Vitalis Scs Alexander Scs Martialis Scs Marcellus Sci Silvestri Sc Felicis Sci Filippi et aliorum multorum Scorum. . . .' All these saints mentioned were buried either in the Cemetery of Priscilla or its immediate vicinity.541541Marucchi, Di un antico battistero recentemente scoperto nel cimetero apostolico di Priscilla a delta sue importanza storica, 1901. Le Memorie degli Apostoli Pietro e Paolo in Roma, 1903, pp. 93–108. In Roma Sotterranea Cristiana, nuova serie, tom. i. p. 10, Marucchi writes ‘Spero di pubblicare un nuovo lavoro su questo stesso argumento.' In any case we are in the presence here of the most ancient of Roman baptisteries.

The Cemetery of Domitilla lies to the west of the Via Ardeatina (a road which ran parallel to the Via Appia) close to the point where it is crossed by the modern Via delle Sette Chiese. The cemetery extends under a property known as the Tor Marancia, a name doubtless derived from a certain Amaranthus.542542Supra, p. 249. In excavations made on this property a number of pagan tombs were found, which gave the clue to De Rossi that he was seeking in order to locate the cemetery of Domitilla mentioned in the ‘Acts of Nereus and Achilles.' One of these discovered in 1772 contains the words





Another found in 1817 records how a certain Calvisius Philotas made this tomb for his brother Sergius Cornelius Julianus, for his wife Calvisia, and for himself


In close vicinity to these were discovered four inscriptions to members of the Bruttian gens. One of these makes mention of a Bruttius Praesens.

D M.

Now Eusebius in his ‘Chronicle' tells us that he derived his information about the Domitianic persecution and the banishment of Flavia Domitilla to the island of Pontia from an historian named Bruttius, who may possibly be identified with C. Bruttius Praesens, who was consul for the second time in 139 A.D. This group of indications led Dc Rossi to suspect that the cemetery which lay beneath the Tor Marancia was none other than the Cemetery of Domitilla, in which, according to the ‘Acts of Nereus and Achilles,' those martyrs were buried.

Acting on this hypothesis the Commission of Sacred Archaeology under the direction of De Rossi began a systematic exploration of the cemetery in 1852. At first progress was but slow, owing to the difficulties placed in the way of research by the then proprietor of the property. Tor Marancia was however in 1873 purchased by Monsgr. Francesco de Merode, with the aim of forwarding the work by every means in his power. Already in 1865 De Rossi had re-discovered the original entrance to the Catacomb hewn out of the side of a low cliff. It must always have been a conspicuous object to the passer-by, and is a proof of the great security which was felt in the protection and immunity from disturbance afforded by the law to all places of burial. This entrance opened into a vestibule adorned with biblical frescoes, which were plainly visible from outside through the door. To this vestibule De Rossi gave the name of Il vestibule dei Flavi; its construction is assigned to the first century. The inscription above the entrance was missing, but in 1874 in the ruins of the basilica of St. Petronilla only a very short distance from the entrance was a fragment of marble containing a portion of a title, which De Rossi has restored thus:


Below this is the Christian symbol, an anchor. In 1873 De Rossi was rewarded by the discovery of the basilica of Nereus and Achilles, which had been one of the special objects of his search. There could be no doubt on the matter, for a portion of an inscription of Pope Damasus was found, the contents of which are known, for a copy exists in the Pilgrim Itinerary of Einsiedeln, and a small column was unearthed on which is represented a scene of martyrdom and above it the word ACILLEVS. According to the ‘Itineraries' the tomb of the famous martyr Petronilla lay behind the altar which covered the remains of Nereus and Achilles. The explorers were able to verify this indication. In a cubiculum behind the apse of the basilica, and approached by a short passage, a fresco was discovered on the wall filling the front of the arcisolium where the sarcophagus had lain; the painting showed two female figures standing, art elder and a younger woman with their names inscribed


In or close by this cubiculum was therefore, it may be safely inferred, the burial place of PETRONILLA. Her sarcophagus was actually removed to the Vatican at the request of the King of France at a time when many such translations were made by Pope Paul I (755–756).

The inscription on the sarcophagus.


may be taken as indicating that she belonged to the Aurelian gens, several of whose members are buried in this cemetery, and that she was related to the Flavian imperial family, one of whose cognomina was Petro.

The legend that she was the daughter of St. Peter has no foundation other than the name.

One of the most ancient portions of the cemetery situated in the immediate vicinity, and to the south of the remains of the basilica of Nereus and Achilles (or as it is sometimes called of Petronilla), is that styled the Region of the Flavii Aurelii. It contains the inscription ΦΛ. SABEINOS · ΚΑΙ ΤΙΤΙΑΝΗ ADELΦΗ not improbably the grandchildren of Flavius Clemens and of Flavia Domitilla the founder of the crypt.

Another of the earliest and most interesting crypts in this Catacomb was discovered in 1881. The decorations of this sepulchral chamber are elaborate and rich, resembling those of a room in a Pompeian house, and belonging to the same period. Above the arcisolium inscribed on marble is the single word AMPLIATI. ‘Les lettres de cette courte épitaphe,' remarks Marucchi, ‘sont très soignées et d'une forme paléographique certainement antérieure à la seconde moitié du IIe siècle; on peut la juger sans témérité de la fin du premier.'543543Elém. d'Arch. Chrét. ii. 118. It is remarkable too that such prominence should be given to a single name bespeaking probably a man of servile origin. A further mark of the regard in which this tomb was held is the existence of a staircase of later date, cut through the rock to provide a direct way of approach from the Via Ardeatina to the pilgrims. That the man thus honoured was the Ampliatus mentioned by St. Paul in the salutation in chapter xvi. of the Epistle to the Romans is therefore not an unreasonable supposition. A later inscription in the same crypt records that a certain Aurelius Ampliatus with Gordianus his son have erected a memorial to Aurelia Bonifatia, his incomparable wife. This Aurelius Ampliatus may have been a descendant of the Ampliatus who was a contemporary of the Apostles, and very probably a freedman of the Aurelian family, many members of which family, as this Catacomb bears witness, had been among the early converts to Christianity.

The precious medallion in bronze, containing the earliest representation in existence of the heads of the two Apostles Peter and Paul, now in the Sacred Museum of the Vatican Library, was found by Boldetti in the Cemetery of Domitilla.544544Osservationi sui cimeteri, 1720, p. 192.

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